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Public schools 2025: A vision for the future

If I could wave a magic wand and transport us to the future – to the best of all possible worlds in 2025 – what would we see on a visit to Alisal, or Harvest Park, or Amador? What would Pleasanton’s students experience in their public schools, that would allow our community to earn its reputation as an outstanding place for families to live and students to learn?

I’m betting that bells will no longer ring in 2025 to signal the beginning of the school day. Students will no longer register for two semesters each year, or three grading periods, or four quarters. And schools will not close for the summer in 2025.

Shelly Blake-Plock argues that many features of our current public schools will be obsolete by 2021, and one of the key differences is that “the next decade is going to see the traditional temporal boundaries between home and school disappear [because] the 21st century is a 24/7 environment.”

She uses this assertion to suggest that homework will disappear. Plus, she thinks that attendance offices will disappear because bio-scans will allow students to check in with their fingerprint. And most provocative of all, she believes that the organization of educational services by grade will fade away.

Whoa! No more grade 7? Grade 8? grade 9?

I believe that’s an innovation that is long overdue, and one that will hit schools like a whirlwind over the next decade.

A necessary complement to the disappearance of students divided up by grades is a radical reframing of the curriculum. We should be moving away from curricular benchmarks that consist of artificially imposed timeframes for all 10-year-olds to take 10 months to learn specific concepts in mathematics (or other subjects).

In 2025, I can envision a school that is more like a community center, open year round from 8 am till 8 pm, and staffed by teams of professional educators who are each “on call” for 6-8 hours each day. The elimination of classroom grades will do away with what Charles Taylor Kerchner labels as “batch-process learning”, to be replaced by learning 2.0 — more choices and more challenges for students.

On a typical day that students check into their community center, they will spend much of their time in small conference rooms with 3-10 other students who are all focused on the same learning project. Students will sign up online to be “at work” in the community center for several time slots each day, and will have options to engage in team sports, theater and musical rehearsals, art projects and quiet reading time during other parts of their day. Students could also schedule days or weeks “off” from school, to travel with their families, but students and families could take pauses from school learning in different weeks. Some project groups could meet online, spanning across local community boundaries to bring together students who share a common interest and similar learning goals.

As Sandy Speicher of IDEO’s Design for Learning domain describes in her vision of the school of future, students will be “Building, making, imagining, interacting, investigating, reflecting, connecting, shaping, participating.” For some learning projects, students will work together intensively for a week or two, meeting for 6 hours per day. Other projects will involve less time each day, and permit students to participate in several different projects concurrently. Project teams might gather outside to collect data on the ecosystem of the arroyo, or visit local businesses to observe marketing trends and survey customers. They might visit with senior citizens to video-record oral histories, or practice their conversational skills in Spanish, Chinese, or Hindu.

Learning will become more student-centered, building on curricular innovations like the Khan Academy for math, allowing students to advance through lessons at their own pace. The roles of teachers will be transformed.

Each student will work with a “portfolio assessor” to review progress toward learning goals every two or three weeks, with parents participating via videoconference or in person. Assessors will provide developmental feedback to individual students each time they complete a learning project, and recommend that students sign up for subsequent learning projects that would challenge them to advance in particular skills.

“Learning coaches” will spend time each day working alongside a learning project team, to ensure that students are taking full advantage of the online supports, peer tutors, and partnerships with student learning groups at other schools that are designed into the project.

As well as serving as portfolio assessors and learning coaches, master teachers will also become “learning architects” who design new learning projects — creating structured opportunities for students to engage with key topics in fascinating ways. The learning projects they design will be available online to learning coaches across the district, so that the best curricular designs can be reused easily with different student learning teams.

As teachers’ jobs are redefined in these new ways, drawing attention to the sophisticated skills that teachers of the future will bring to their work, the greater public will develop a deeper respect for teaching as a profession. Talented individuals will again aspire to become teachers, drawn by their increasing autonomy as they develop skill in facilitating students’ learning.

These changes will not come easily, of course. There are formidable political battles ahead on the innovation journey from 2011 to 2025. Without an energizing vision of the future to guide us, those battles may seem overwhelming. When a vision of the future emerges, though, it becomes easier to give up outdated practices in order to make space and time for new efforts with more powerful impacts on learning.

What’s your vision of the school of the future? Grab that magic wand, and dream big.


Building trust between our school district and the Pleasanton community

I was surprised to see the school district reinstate programs at its June 3 board meeting. After all, through the winter and spring, budget projections from the state’s Legislative Analyst down to the school district’s assistant superintendent for budget services were grim. The budget projections in past years (2009-2010 and 2010-2011) have been almost as negative (though 2011-2012 was supposed to be worse). Many community members, including myself, worked hard to pass measure E — which was described as a partial solution, but not a big enough parcel tax to solve all our budget problems — and yet we were unsuccessful. So the idea that the district could reverse budget cuts before the state budget is finalized was surprising.

Why could the district reverse February’s budget cuts in June?

  1. the state economy is improving, with an additional $3 billion in state revenue expected between July and December, as compared with the projections that Governor Brown’s January budget proposal was based on.
  2. the school district had budgeted conservatively in February, assuming that state tax extensions would not get on the ballot and that the measure E parcel tax would fail.

Could anyone have predicted in February that the economy would be doing so much better by May? Perhaps, and if they were smart, they invested in the stock market based on that prediction. However, I do not believe it would have been fiscally responsible for the school district to assume that they might see additional revenues from the state that no one else was predicting would occur.

Could the school district have managed its budget challenges even more conservatively? The school district could have attempted to impose a hard salary cap and cuts to the salary schedule, while preserving existing programs. However, I believe the teachers’ union and the classified employees’ union would have put up a big fight, and I do not believe that a mediator would rule in favor of the school district.

Alternative explanations

However, some might not be surprised that the budget predictions now are rosier than they were in January. There is a vocal minority in Pleasanton who think the school district was just crying wolf and the budget problems could be easily surmounted without a parcel tax (or tax extensions at the state level). In a new post, The Armageddon That Wasn’t, a representative of the PEVC writes

“The PUSD Armageddon-that-wasn’t along with the CA state budget theatrics was messaged/timed to condition voters to extend the temporary state tax increases and to heighten Pleasanton voter angst to impose a new parcel tax.
Why should voters trust either PUSD or its union leaders to give an honest accounting (or prediction) of the district’s fiscal health? And should we trust those who claim that failed parcel taxes will destroy housing prices?”
The distrust described in the blog post boils down to three beliefs:
  • the school district is in the pocket of the Association of Pleasanton Teachers (a union local of the California Teachers Association which represents Pleasanton teachers at the bargaining table);
  • the school district leaders don’t give an honest account of the district’s future budget challenges, with the intent of misleading voters to pass higher taxes;
  • pro-parcel tax campaigners try to frighten voters with the potential of lower property values if a parcel tax does not pass.
The fact that so many people voted against measure E indicates that people find at least one of those assertions believable. Let me address them in reverse order.

Why do people believe that parcel taxes and property tax values are unrelated?
Because so many other factors affect property tax values that in many cases the impact of parcel taxes is undetectable. I never thought this was a strong argument in favor of a parcel tax, and I wish that supporters of the school district would stop using it. It distracts from much more significant benefits of investing in our local schools.

Why do people believe that district leaders misled the public about the district’s financial challenges?

There are two possible explanations for this belief. The first is that people are aware of a history of financial decisions about bond refinancing made between 2003 and 2005, and which some have challenged as illegal and inappropriate uses of public money. Measure B was passed in March, 1997, and approved $69.8 million in debt financing for school building and remodeling projects. Between 2003 and 2005, the district made about $6.3 million in cash refinancing. There were three effects of the refinancing. First, the interest rates on the remaining debt were reduced. Second, additional fees were paid to the companies that helped the district implement the refinancing. Third, the cash generated by refinancing was not used to reduce the principal on the bond, but instead, was used for additional building and remodeling projects. Those who challenge these actions also believe that the oversight committee for the use of measure B funds should continue to meet even after all the funds have been spent, to ensure that the district is repaying the principal on these loans in a way that minimizes the total interest paid and the costs of companies that advise the district on how to pay down these loans.
More information about measure B funds and how they were used is available through the school district on its Measure B page. There is currently a citizens committee meeting with an outside company to review the use of bond funds and cash out refinancing. From the school district home page:
“The District has engaged Government Financial Strategies (GFS), an independent company, to conduct a review of these financing transactions and report to the Board on Tuesday, June 21, regarding the results of these financings.As part of this process, PUSD has invited a committee of local citizens to participate in this review of the District’s activities related to the refunding of bonds. The committee will meet twice–on Monday, June 13, and Monday June 20, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the PUSD District Offices (meetings are open to the public). Committee members are: Beth Limesand (chair); Kay Ayala; Jan Batcheller; Jack Dove; Anne Fox; Kathleen Ruegsegger; and Julie Testa. The committee is charged with assisting GFS in completing its scope of work by providing thoughtful input to the work in progress and reviewing preliminary findings. It is hoped that, by these efforts, the report to the Board will be helpful in terms of transparency, fiscal accountability, and implementing best practices in the areas of debt management and debt issuance.Follow the links for the June 14 overview from GFF and an updated scope of work.”
I look forward to hearing the outcome of the citizens’ committee review. Since I did not live in Pleasanton during the time in question, but I do still pay property tax toward the measure B bonds, it will be reassuring to get all these issues out on the table to be reviewed in a transparent way.

That’s the past, but what about the future? Why do people believe that district leaders are misleading the public about the district’s future financial challenges?

The roller coaster of the past several years has made Californians cynical about budget cuts that seem at first horrific, but then never materialize in the dramatic form that is predicted. More about this in a separate post.

Why do people believe that the school district and the APT are too closely allied?

Because the last time the union went on strike against the school district was in 1986. People believe that because both sides describe the relationship between the union and the district as respectful and productive, that means that the school district is not pushing the union hard enough for concessions.
In particular, some people believe that the district should be pushing for permanent reductions in salary for teachers, rather than annually negotiated furlough days, which reduce take-home pay for teachers in that year, but do not reset personnel costs over the years that follow.

Readers will have to decide for themselves whether to trust the school district about financial issues. I believe that Superintendent Ahmadi and Assistant Superintendent Cazares are of high integrity and tell the truth about the district’s finances. The roller coaster of dire budget predictions followed by reprieves is a function of the state legislature’s actions and not of the school district’s leadership. Until that roller coaster in Sacramento is replaced by a more sane budgeting process, our school district has to make the best of a bad system.

Cuts rescinded, programs saved in Pleasanton schools

The special board meeting yesterday (June 3) was well attended by parents, teachers and staff. Several spoke in favor of restoring class sizes in grades K-3, PE specialists in the elementary schools, reading specialists and the Barton specialist, and counselors.

Parents and students also advocated for expanded course offerings in the high schools, and obtained a partial victory when the board amended cabinet’s recommendation and added $50,000 for each comprehensive high school to use to open additional sections so that more high school students will be able to include seven subjects in their high school schedule for next fall.

The archived webcast of the meeting is available online. I attended the portion of the meeting from 4:30 till 6 pm, but the vote was not finalized until about 7 pm. After I’ve had a chance to review the rest of the webcast, I will post an expanded summary of the meeting, with my commentary.

There is also a summary article up at the Pleasanton Patch.